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Authors: Margaret Drabble

The Seven Sisters

BOOK: The Seven Sisters
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MARGARET DRABBLE
The Seven Sisters

PENGUIN BOOKS

Contents

PART I: Her Diary

PART II: Italian Journey

PART III: Ellen’s Version

PART IV: A Dying Fall

PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS

THE SEVEN SISTERS

Margaret Drabble was born in 1939 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the daughter of barrister and novelist John F. Drabble, and sister of novelist A. S. Byatt. She attended the Quaker Mount School in York and Cambridge University, and was also briefly a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is the author of eighteen novels and eight works of non-fiction, including biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. Her third novel
The Millstone
won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and for later novels she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the E. M. Forster award. She is also the editor of
The Oxford Companion to English Literature
. In 1980, Margaret Drabble was made a CBE and in 2008 she was made DBE. She is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd, and lives in London and Somerset.

For Ann, Kay, Pat, Per, Viv and Al

Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?
And not one of them is forgotten before God.

PART I
Her Diary

She sits alone, high on a dark evening, in the third year of her sojourn

I have just got back from my Health Club. I have switched on this modern laptop machine. And I have told myself that I must resist the temptation to start playing solitaire upon it. Instead, I am going to write some kind of diary. I haven’t kept a diary since I was at school.
En effet
, we all used to keep them then. Julia, Janet and I, and all the other girls. It was the fashion, at St Anne’s, in the Fourth Form. Nothing much happened to us, but we all wrote about it nonetheless. We wrote about our young, trivial, daily hopes, our likes and our dislikes, our friends and our enemies, our hockey games and our blackheads and our crushes and our faith in God. We wrote about what we thought about Emily Brontë and the dissection of frogs. I don’t think we were very honest in our diaries. Blackheads and acne were as far as we got in our truth-telling in those days.

Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again. But that should not prevent me from trying to write about it. I cannot help but feel that there is something important about this nothingness. It should represent a lack of hope, and yet I think that, somewhere, hope may yet be with me. This nothingness is significant. If I immerse myself in it, perhaps it will turn itself into something else. Into something terrible, into something transformed. I cast myself upon its waste of waters. It is not for myself alone that I do this. I hope I may discover some more general purpose as I write. I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore.

I sometimes have fears that my Health Club may not be very healthy after all. Since I started to swim there, one of my toenails has begun to look very odd. It has turned a bluish-yellow colour, and is
developing a ridged effect that I think is new to me, though it is true that I see more of my toenails now that I swim more often. And I sometimes fancy I hear the words ‘legionnaires’ disease’ hanging in the air, though I know they whisper only in my imagination. I mustn’t get paranoid about it. It’s very clean there, really. Spotlessly clean, expensively clean. A far cry from the chlorinated municipal pool we visited once a week from St Anne’s. Schools, even quite good schools, didn’t have their own pools in those days, as they do now.

I love my Health Club. It’s saving my life. Isn’t it? The water in the pool isn’t chlorinated, it’s ionized. I don’t know what that means, but the result is that the water is pure and soft to the limbs, and odourless to the nostrils.

You do overhear some odd conversations there, though. I heard an alarming one this very evening.

I wasn’t eavesdropping. There was no way I could avoid hearing it. We were all within a few feet of one another, in a small space, in varying stages of undress. I tried not to look at them, and I knew they weren’t looking at me. Why should they? There is an etiquette. It’s easy to avoid the eyes and bodies of others. But you can’t help hearing what they say. Unless you’ve got your Sony Walkman plugged into your brain, or a mobile phone clamped to your ear. And I haven’t got a mobile phone or a Sony Walkman yet. I don’t think I want a mobile phone, but I’m thinking of getting a Sony Walkman. I never thought I’d even think of it. But then, so much of what I think of now would have been unthinkable to me ten years ago, five years ago. Some of it would have been unthinkable to anyone, I suppose. Some of the things most people seem to have now hadn’t even been invented ten years ago.

Actually, I’m not sure I mean ‘Sony Walkman’ – ‘Sony Walkman’ is just a phrase to me. I may mean something else. I haven’t dared yet to ask what it is that I do mean. Perhaps I mean a ‘headset’. Nor do I know what kind of shop I’d get this thing in, even if I knew what it was that I was getting. Out of my depth, that’s what I am. Though the pool isn’t very deep.
No diving. No children. No running. No outdoor shoes
. We keep the rules.

The thing I mean is that earplug device attached to a headband
that people stick on their heads and into their ears in order to listen to the television monitors or to Classic FM or Radio 2 while they pound along on the treadmill or pedal away on the bicycle. I quite want one, but I don’t know where to buy one. And I’m in some way ashamed to ask. I grow ever more cowardly with age. Shame is a word that haunts me.

The chat of these two women began harmlessly. They were talking about exercise, workouts, stress, back pain. It’s odd, the way young people seem to get so much back pain and shoulder pain these days. We never did, when we were their age. Health Clubs hadn’t been invented, when I was young. There were tennis clubs, and those echoing public swimming pools where some people were said to catch polio, but there weren’t any Health Clubs.

These were two young women, not close friends, possibly meeting for the first time – I didn’t hear the beginning of their conversation. They were already talking to one another when I dripped my way along the white tiles from the pool to my locker. One of them, the younger, was a professional in Health Club matters; the other, like me, seemed to be an amateur and a beginner. The younger one was skinny and dark and fit, with an oval face and a long thin pointed nose and slanting doe-like eyes and a breastless body like a ballerina’s. You could see her ribs. She wore her dark hair in curiously childish bunches which stuck straight out from her head. She was advising her plumper companion about which classes to join, and how long to use the treadmill. The plump woman, whose naked blue-white flesh was soft and dimpled and bulging, listened attentively as she towelled herself dry and pulled on her workaday cotton vest and pants. Then she must have asked the bunchy lady for more specific advice, for the conversation turned to a lump in her lower back. The thin dark bunchy lady ran her hands over the flanks and loins and back of the pale plump lady, and said that she could indeed feel the lump. It was a knot of muscle, she affirmed, and would soon submit to massage and exercise.

I remember thinking that this sounded like the vaguely optimistic advice that so-called professional healers usually offer, as a prelude to asking for money. I’m afraid I’ve always been sceptical about the
virtues of massage and exercise, and anything that involves the laying on of hands has always seemed to me to be particularly suspect. Reiki, aromatherapy, yoga, shiatsu. I don’t know even what they are, but I distrust them. However, as the two of them went into more detail, as the one with the bunches asked the one with the lump to stretch this way and that, I began to think that maybe the professional was taking this probably fictitious and attention-seeking complaint seriously, and with kindness, for she was listening patiently, and offering what sounded to me (though I wasn’t really listening) like sensible advice. And then I noticed an almost imperceptible change in the tone of the younger person’s voice. She continued to speak calmly and soothingly about stress and muscle tension and the dangers of sitting too long before a computer, but a kind of distant and muted caution had entered her tone. Had she, I wondered, suspected that an unwelcome or over-friendly overture was about to be made by the older woman?

I call the plumper woman ‘older’, but she was probably under thirty. They were both young. Most people at the Health Club are young. I’m no longer very good at judging the ages of the young. I’m not bad at teenagers, because of all those years as a headmaster’s wife, but I’m not good at those prime decades between twenty and fifty. I wonder where they get the money from, these young people. The Health Club fees are expensive. I wouldn’t be able to afford them without the special discount. If I don’t get the discount next year I won’t be able to keep it up. I have to count my pennies now, since my change of status. Are they all working? And if so, what at? Do their employers sometimes foot the bill, as I believe they do in Japan?

The change of tone in the younger thinner woman’s voice wasn’t due to a brush-off. It wasn’t that at all. It was something quite different. It was fear and concern that I heard in her voice. The younger thinner woman was playing for time, as she said, yes, she could feel the lump, it was quite large, she agreed, and it did indeed move up and down under the skin, just as its owner had claimed it did. She was sure it would respond to the right kind of massage and exercise regime, she said, but meanwhile she really thought the other woman ought to take it to her doctor. Go and see your GP, the ballerina said.

Both fell quiet, as they considered this suggestion, and I pulled my navy-blue sweatshirt over my head and pretended I wasn’t there. I don’t think they had noticed me anyway. I’m not very noticeable.

When I emerged from the temporary muffled deafness of my garment, they had reverted to a more normal tone, and were already discussing something else. I can’t remember what. Something neutral and harmless, like the new seafood restaurant down the road. The young do eat out a lot. Again, I wonder how they can afford it. Are they all earning a lot of money? This isn’t a very affluent area. Well, it’s what’s called mixed. Some of it’s awash with money, and some of it begs on the street corner. I’m still not always very good at telling which bits of it are which, though I’m getting better at it. My eye is adjusting, gradually. To the dark life of the city.

These two didn’t sound very well off, from the way they spoke. But they must be. Or, as I said, they wouldn’t be able to afford the fees. I don’t understand these modern accents. Young people today don’t speak very well, do they?

I could still hear the anxiety in both their voices. I wanted to say, It’s probably only a lipoma, but that would probably have made matters worse, and, anyway, what on earth did I know about it? I hadn’t laid my hands on that stranger’s body, had I? I didn’t know what lay beneath the skin.

She encourages herself to continue, despite misgivings

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